Mystery as comfort food

Mystery as comfort food

The ‘traditionally-built’ proprietress of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is back to do some gentle sleuthing in a world that is still calm and unhurried, says Parvathi Ramkumar

Gorgeous African sunsets, the lone acacia tree and mugfuls of red bush tea -- all that gladdens Mma Ramotswe's big heart

This is the latest instalment in Alexander McCall Smith’s long running ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’ series of books. Set in Botswana, it sees the return of old characters and a mystery (or mysteries) to solve. In spite of being part of a series, however, the book can be read as a standalone.

When the book begins, the ever-charming Precious Ramotswe or Mma Ramotswe, is at a wedding where there is a lot going on.  Traditional customs are on display, there’s the meeting of old friends, and most importantly, there’s Mma Ramotswe’s wry observations of the crowd.

And, of course, she sees an old friend there, who is, by all accounts, supposed to be dead. Calviniah, the friend in question, has problems of her own, problems that Mma Ramotswe shares with her colleagues, Mma Makutsi and the young assistant Charlie at their detective agency. With business slow and not much to do, Calviniah’s case is taken up.

Charlie, for his part, is very troubled. He wishes to marry the very wealthy Queenie-Queenie and he cannot afford the bride price.

All under the Botswana sun

A lot of little mysteries such as these run around in the book. There is a mathematics professor who is (or is not) cheating on his wife. There is a little girl at an orphanage whom Mma Ramotswe takes a liking to. There is a preacher who is rumoured to be ridiculously attractive to women, and whose church has gathered a lot of followers, including another of Mma Ramotswe’s friends, for obvious reasons. A thread of acquaintanceship appears to connect nearly everyone.

Mma Ramotswe is, of course, something of a philosopher. Her interpretations range from women’s place in society and the overall inefficacy of men to the weather, romance, nostalgia, her father, meat-eating and nearly everything else under the Botswana sun.  Mma Makutsi, meanwhile, remains a bully, and continues to be very opinionated in a way that is not excessively mean. She continues to rely heavily on degrees and books and takes herself very seriously. Her word is final, until someone tactfully contradicts her.  

The book has shifting points of view, with the third person narrative sometimes switching to Charlie and his troubles with his marriage. 

Where is the mystery?

All this makes the book charmingly unique. Yes, there is a mystery, but it is more of a family-centric one that focuses on a mother bewildered by her daughter’s odd behaviour. There are no violent crimes that shock the gentle placidity of Mma Ramotswe’s nature or Mma Makutsi’s sharp opinions. It is possible to wonder at Queenie-Queenie’s happy-go-lucky confidence, to sympathise with Charlie and to genuinely like both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makusi and their infinite observations of the world around them. Botswana’s customs and ancestral traditions also find a mention in the book in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. 

However, it can be a bit bewildering when too many details are added to the story. With professors and workers in diamond factories and preachers and husbands both wayward and faithful — there are many events and characters introduced into the storyline. The mystery does not seem as mysterious as it could have been and it is rather convenient that everybody recognises everyone else in some shape or form, be it from childhood or from working together briefly somewhere, or through hearsay that comes along at just the right time.

Despite these niggles, the story reads smooth and there is rarely any conflict. There is a certain niceness that pervades it. A particular character’s repentance towards the end of the book is a little unrealistic, considering how quickly it happens and how easily. Secrets are spilled rather quickly with a wee bit of flattery. Loose ends are tied up too neatly — although these do fit the overall tone and tenor of the novel. Not to forget, there’s a bit of humour sprinkled throughout the pages. On the whole, a light-hearted holiday read. 

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